Lydia Ko, 16, prepares for first golf tournament as pro
In so many ways, she is still a 16-year-old girl.
Lydia Ko was late for her first major interview as a professional -- a long-scheduled affair in the media center at Tiburon Golf Club at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, 26 hours before her tee time in the opening round of the CME Titleholders. The press conference was nationally televised, so LPGA officials were noticeably panicked when their star came up absent. A search party scoured the grounds. Ko was quickly located.
She wasn’t stuck in traffic -- she doesn’t have a license and by her own admission is "a terrible driver" -- nor was she upholding the tradition of other young superstars who think being late somehow establishes the ground rules for who is in charge. No, Ko was embarrassed by her tardiness. She had been eating breakfast in the players’ dining room and simply lost track of time.
This is just one of the non-verbal ways in which Ko reminded the world that, despite being the best teenaged golfer since Tom Morris more than a century ago, she is still a kid. After the press conference she headed to the range, but somehow managed to lose her new iPhone in the journey. The phone was later retrieved, and Ko had no trouble getting to the first tee on Thursday morning where she made a couple of pars before carding her first double-bogey in her third hole as a pro.
Lost phones, running late and a tendency to let sentence fragments dangle in the air, finishing her thoughts with a ubiquitous, "Yeah," are all refreshing marks of a normal teenager, but in many other ways Ko looks and acts like a seasoned veteran, calm and confident with a wealth of perspective that seems almost impossible for a 16-year-old to possess.
"I had a lot of people telling me I should turn pro after I won the Canadian Open (for the second consecutive time earlier in the summer)," she said. "But at that moment I thought it was just another surprise week and I wanted some more proof. Second place at Evian (in the Evian Championship, the season’s final major), definitely helped me with making the decision."
That is not the kind of reasoning one expects from a young lady who wasn’t yet born when Tiger Woods won his first Masters.
The more appropriate response was the one she gave as she stepped down from the podium, smiled, rolled her eyes and said, "That’s the longest press conference I’ve ever done."
It won’t be the longest one she will ever have, though. When asked about a recent Time magazine piece that named her one of the most influential teenagers in the world, she said, "I don’t even know why I’m there to be honest. ... I don’t know what I’ve really done. I’ve just done the things I love to do."
What has been the biggest difference in playing as a professional?
"When I came through customs and the agent was stamping my passport and asked why I was here, I said I was playing golf here," she said. "He said, ‘Oh, are you a pro?’ And I said ‘Yeah, I am." Then with a huge smile she added, "I’d never said that before."
There isn’t much else at tournaments that will be new to her. Her first two rounds at the Titleholders are with Michelle Wie, the poster girl for the perils of early fame, but an old playing partner for Ko.
"I haven’t done a certain thing to make me more mature," she said. "When I’m at the golf course, and even at home when I’m at my golf club, I’m around people who are older than me, so it just kind of happens. I can’t act like a 16-year-old when I’m here with 20- or 30-year-olds. That doesn’t make sense."
She hasn’t had, or even been to a birthday party in "forever," and she doesn’t go out to the movies with other 16-year-olds on Friday nights. "I missed that a few years ago," she said. "But not anymore."
Now, she has other things to think about, like the $700,000 winner’s check that her mom, Tina, had to remind her was on the line this week. And she has an image and a brand to build, something she understands better than most kids her age.
"I want to be remembered like Annika (Sorenstam) or Lorena (Ochoa)," Ko said when the inevitable legacy questions came up. "They did so much for the LPGA and the women’s game."
But then she closed with something far more prophetic, a philosophic statement born of innocence but one that could mean great things for Ko in the years ahead.
"One of the big things is I want to be known quite well to the spectators for being very nice and very friendly. Yeah, that’s really important."